Why do Italians sprinkle ashes on the head, instead of marking the forehead with them?


Full Question

When I was in Rome, I noticed that blessed ashes were administered by sprinkling them on the crown of the head, rather than by marking the forehead with a cross, as is generally done in the U.S. Why?

Answer

Sprinkling ashes on the crown of the head recalls the biblical method of putting on sackcloth and ashes as a sign of penance: "Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth upon their heads" (Neh 9:1). The American method of putting ashes on the forehead, usually in the sign of the cross, allows the ashes to be visible to others so that the communal, penitential nature of the day might be more readily visible.


Michelle Arnold